I have been on an insane AC/DC kick as of late. I don’t know what sparked it, but I have been rolling through Let There Be Rock, Powerage and Highway to Hell like it’s nobody’s business.
Oh, I should mention I am a Bon Scott fan. That doesn’t mean I discredit everything the band has created after his untimely and tragic death in 1980 — it only means that when I think of AC/DC, I think of Scott’s explicit, squealing, slightly-sharp vocals on top of the unmistakable, ripping rhythm section.
To me, the Bon Scott years attract the filthier AC/DC fans: punk rockers, beatniks and sleazy guitar players, whereas the Brian Johnson years get love from a much broader audience — from metal heads who dig the heaviness of 1981’s For Those About To Rock We Salute You to the soccer moms who can’t resist dancing to the band’s biggest mainstream hit, “You Shook Me All Night Long.”
However, in the midst of this seasonal obsession I seem to be having with the 1974-1979 catalog, I found myself humming tunes from an album that came out 20 years after the Scottish-born Australian frontman died.
In 2000, AC/DC released Stiff Upper Lip, the first studio album from the five piece since 1995’s ill-fated, Rick Rubin-produced Ballbreaker. I was a sophomore in high school at the time. For whatever reason, the album’s first single “Stiff Upper Lip” was getting a ridiculous amount of rotation on my local progressive rock station, Sacramento’s KRXQ 98 Rock. (It was a gift from above at the time; I vividly remember grinding my teeth on a regular basis for having to sit through Godsmack and Limp Bizkit just to hear a f***** Led Zeppelin song!) Ultimately, it was all I needed, and I plunged into AC/DC records faster than Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock fell from the charts.
Last week I revisited this particular album and realized it is by far the best one the band has done with Brian Johnson in front of the mic. Why, you ask? Because it’s the only Brian Johnson album where I can easily replace his vocals with Bon Scott’s and not have some odd musical disagreement. The music on Stiff Upper Lip is a dive back into the 70s raunchy formula of dirtying up the blues. The songs are simple and addictive.
Hooky guitar licks dominate this album (just like any AC/DC album) but its three singles aren’t just an extension of the predecessors: “Stiff Upper Lip,” “Safe In New York City,” and “Satellite Blues all carry the vintage raw boogie the band band pranced on top of in the 70s.” While “Lip” and “Satellite” are danceable blues-rock ditties, “New York City” is a rapid-fire axe-grinder that sounds like it was a cut from 1977’s Let There Be Rock.
“Hold Me Back” and “Can’t Stand Still” are the two that stand out to me the most — and they’re the two Bon Scott could have easily been roaring along to in the band’s prime. The “old-school” AC/DC approach to both of these songs suggests producer George Young (older brother of guitarists Angus and Malcolm Young…and member of the legendary 60s (punk) band The Easybeats) played a major role in how the songs turned out: less is more.
I envision the elder Young telling his brothers to, “Cut that riff in half! You can make two songs out of that!”
So what is the point of this long-winded rant? Nothing really, I suppose. Only that you shouldn’t ignore Stiff Upper Lip — especially if you favor the earlier years of the legendary band. The fact that it came out 20 years after Scott’s death and it was only the second album produced by George Young (since Scott died) is sorta special.
-Chris Coyle, JACK Seattle